The Lady Vols held their 2016 Media Day on Thursday to talk basketball. Tennessee is low in numbers this season – just nine players are available – but Holly Warlick has been praising the group throughout preseason, especially in terms of leadership and effort.
“Our kids are hungry, motivated, and we are getting great leadership out of Jordan Reynolds and Diamond DeShields,” Warlick said. “Going into practice it has been extremely competitive. If you do not have to teach effort, you are in business; so far I have not had to teach effort.
“I have had to get on them, yes, but I think they are going out with the intentions of getting better. So, I am really proud of that leadership and how they have stepped up and taken control of this team.”
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood has sung the praises of Jaime Nared all summer because of her off-season commitment. Warlick reiterated the commitment of the junior forward at Media Day.
“Jaime dedicated herself to getting better both offensively and defensively, so when you get better you have to get in the gym and work and Jaime got in the gym and worked. There are some kids that had to take time off because of nagging injuries and I get that, but Jaime I thought really dedicated herself to getting in the gym.”
Warlick added that Reynolds and DeShields also had productive summers, while several players were under mandated rest to heal from some injuries that had hindered them last season.
The USA Today Coaches Poll was released Thursday, and the Lady Vols checked in at No. 14 in the country after an Elite Eight finish last March.
“All I know is that I think these kids have an opportunity to be very special and being ranked 14th right now, we will take that as a positive,” Warlick said. “Our schedule is harder than it was last year, so we can be excited that we are 14 but we need to focus on maintaining that ranking and being better. We have to compete and we have an unbelievable schedule that will help us move up and get that respect that we are looking for.”
Tennessee is without point guard Te’a Cooper this season because the sophomore injured her knee playing pickup at home over the summer. She attended Media Day and said rehab was going well. Cooper has shed her crutches after surgery last month. Junior guard Alexa Middleton will be the backup to Reynolds at the point position.
“She can play the two, the one and if we go small, she can be in the three spot,” Warlick said. “I think you are going to see her have the opportunity to showcase her game. I think Lex is the type of lady that the more she plays, the better she gets.”
Reynolds has confidence in Middleton already.
“I would not necessarily say Alexa is a backup player,” Reynolds said. “She is a phenomenal player, she does just about everything for this team, she is a great leader and she takes the right shots and she is not afraid to take the big shots. She penetrates when we need penetration and she does everything we need for this team.”
DeShields also can shift to the top of the floor, but the Lady Vols need her to make shots this season more so than setting up teammates. Tennessee may get in some shootouts this season, so marksmanship will be key across the court.
“We kind of settled a lot with shooting last year, we just shot the ball,” DeShields said. “When we were open, we just shot it; when we weren’t open, we just shot it. So having the athleticism, the size and quickness that we do, we have to make that work, penetrate and use our defense and utilize our offense better.”
The Lady Vols hope to pick up where they left off last season. After erratic play in the regular season, the Lady Vols came live in postseason.
“We dropped out of the rankings so people feared we wouldn’t have made it to the tournament and that would have been the first time in years that would have happened or ever,” Reynolds said. “We ended up being the last SEC team standing in the NCAA tournament, which was a surprise for us but we just kept the faith, believed in each other and we had a great run.”
Former Lady Vol set the orange tone with her first WNBA championship this month.
“It made me proud of Candace and how hard she has worked this season, how much she has handled, and I know what it means to her,” Warlick said. “I know what it means to her to have played at this university and play under Pat Summitt and represent the Lady Vols and it all goes hand-in-hand.
“She has won at every level, and she is excited to have won at that level. I know how hard Candace Parker works and she is relentless. I was jumping around like I had won as well. All of us as Lady Vols were jumping up excited for Candace.”